Pa. Crash Site Finding Its Place in History
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 25, 2002; Page A03
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – There's little to see from the lazy hill overlooking the barren stretch of earth where United Flight 93 fell from the sky. Few trees and even fewer houses dot the land. The gaping hole at the crash site has been filled, and unlike at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, there is no ongoing hustle and bustle.
Neither are there amenities. No place to sit. No toilet. Nothing to shield visitors from the harsh winter wind. Just a makeshift memorial, a new parking lot and an abundance of sky.
And yet people keep coming to this quaint hamlet – more than 1,000 a week from near and far – to see, just see, the spot where a huge plane and its 44 passengers and crew disintegrated. Yellow ribbons and tiny flags line the route there, along Lambertsville Road, on to Buckstown Road and then, finally, on to Skyline Road.
The cars, many with out-of-state tags, come whether it's bright and sunny or dank and cold. Most don't stay long. Some people gaze down at the land, and then up into the sky. Others just peer out over the hill, pondering those lives that were lost, and their own.
"I always wonder what would have been going through my mind," said Charlie Zuck, of Elizabethtown, Pa., shivering in the cold, biting wind. "If you didn't know something had happened here, you could just pass it by. There's really nothing here."
Like many who come, Zuck, 53, wanted to pay his respects and answer an internal urge to see the place for himself. The mood is solemn, even among the youngsters who arrive on big yellow school buses. People nudge each other and point or speak in whispered, library-like tones.
Gary Singel believes he knows why. The plane hit with such force that there were few big pieces, either of the plane or the people who died, to recover.
"Most of their bodies, in essence, are still out there," said Singel, superintendent of the Shanksville-Stonycreek school district. "One of the family members [of the crash victims] said they consider it a cemetery. In that sense, this is ground that will always be a somber place to see."
Before the crash, few had reason to trek to this field off Skyline Road. It was just an abandoned coal mine, next to a junky-looking metal-recycling facility.
Now Shanksville, with a population of 260, two miles away from the site and about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is mentioned on national and international television broadcasts. At the Somerset exit off the Pennsylvania turnpike, toll takers give out printed directions to those who ask. Locals are bracing for more publicity as plans progress in Washington for a possible national memorial here at the crash site.
The attention is changing the town. Somerset County is accustomed to visitors because it has three ski lodges. But seldom, locals said, did visitors venture to Shanksville unless they were from here or came to visit a relative. Now out-of-towners visit regularly. At the six-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Shanksville United Methodist Church had its first interdenominational service – with representatives of Catholicism, Judaism and Islam – which the Rev. Ronald Emery said was a bit "radical" for the town.
As politicians have yet to decide what, if any, kind of national monument there will be, area residents have taken charge of the site's upkeep, realizing that the town is now a part of American history.
Native Donna Glessner has started a team of 20 volunteer "ambassadors" who go to the site on weekends to make sure visitors have accurate information: where the plane hit (next to the bank of trees), what happens to the artifacts (they are cleaned, stored and catalogued) and where the flight was headed (Newark to San Francisco).
And Barbara Black ends up with all the things that people leave as memorials. Black is the curator at the Somerset Historical Center, about 10 miles away. The center has collected thousands of objects, including original paintings, flags, toys, a well-used softball, Christmas decorations and a United Airlines female flight attendant's uniform. The items are being catalogued and will be turned over if there is an official memorial.
The women said it is their duty to help preserve the site, and to keep the memory of what happened on Flight 93 alive.
"It's more than just a place where a plane went down," Black said. "It's about who we are as a nation, how we are perceived by other nations, what we need to do to get along with other nations. We should heal, but we should never forget."
But both women also hear the voices – locally and nationally – of those who believe it's time to move on. Glessner gets it mostly from her son, 12, and daughter, 15. "They're real tired of it, and they wish I would be tired of it," Glessner said as she took a break from copying materials at Shanksville United Methodist for summer Bible school. "But I'm never very far from it."
For some, forgetting is not an option, Emery said. No one from this community died or was injured. No business went under. But on the morning of the crash, many in the community literally felt the plane hit the ground.
Emery had just left the post office on Main Street and was about to turn on his car radio when the car shook so that he thought someone had bumped into him while parking.
"When you physically felt that impact, those people were going into eternity, and that does affect a community," said Emery, who has three children. "The kids are ready to move on. They know it's a part of their history, but they're more focused on their future."
Singel wonders if the community will someday long for the days before the crash.
"The town has gotten a lot of recognition and notoriety and that sort of thing," said Singel, who has been head of the school district – which has one school with 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade – for 27 years. "The town becomes a little more busy, and people's lives become a little more hectic than they used to be. They have embraced some things. But you wonder how long it will be before the town says enough is enough already and tries to get back to some normalcy."